Baptist Successionism

I found the following review on the Founders website last year sometime, and after reading the book, found it to be one of those milestones that have liberated me from an error in which I was raised. Thought I’d direct all of you to it . . .

Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History
American Theological Library Association Monograph Series,
by James Edward McGoldrick,
Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1994, 181 pp. $27.50

reviewed by Terry Chrisope
For anyone who has felt the attraction of Baptist successionism (“Landmarkism” in popular terminology), James McGoldrick has provided half the antidote. In Baptist Successionism, he demonstrates that this peculiar but popular interpretation of ecclesiastical history is historically untenable. It may be said at the outset that he does so in absolutely convincing fashion.
McGoldrick acknowledges (p. 2) that he once held the successionist theory, which claims that there has been an unbroken line or succession of Baptist (or at least baptistic) churches from New Testament times down to the present era. This understanding of church history was popularized in the United States by J. R. Graves in the mid-nineteenth century and especially by J. M. Carroll’s booklet, The Trail of Blood, published in 1931. Baptist successionism, or Landmarkism, also typically incorporates a denial of any concept of the church as the universal body of Christ made up of all Christian believers, and a rejection of all other (nonbaptist) church bodies as genuine churches.
McGoldrick’s method is first to define in terms of theology and practice what it means to be Baptist, then to examine the historical groups down through the centuries that have been claimed by Baptist successionists. he gives particular attention to those sects which are mentioned as Baptist forebears in The Trail of Blood. McGoldrick is to be commended for not contenting himself with the pronouncements of later historians but instead has sought out the primary sources which describe the beliefs and practices of the groups he examines. He carefully subjects these documentary sources to critical evaluation regarding their reliability.
To cite McGoldrick’s conclusions is to call the roll of the heroes of Baptist successionism, but in each case the claims made for them by successionists are found to be unsubstantiated: the evidence shows that the Montanists and Novatians were schismatic Catholics, not Baptists; St. Patrick operated under the auspices of the bishop of Rome and did not adhere to the Baptist conception of church, sacraments or ministry; the Paulicians were not Baptists but separatists from Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, they were anti-Trinitarian, and held an adoptionist Christology; the Bogomils were an extension of a dualistic strain of Paulicianism whose theology was not even Christian, much less Baptist; there is no positive evidence that Peter de Bruys, Henry of Lausanne, or Arnold of Brescia or their followers were Baptists; the Albigenses inherited the extreme dualism of the Bogomils and “held almost nothing in common with modern Baptists” (p. 67); and the medieval Waldenses were similar to the Roman Catholic order of Franciscans, while the later Waldenses were more akin to Presbyterians and Methodists than Baptists. Although the Anabaptist of the sixteenth century might seem on superficial consideration to be genuine ancestors of the Baptists, McGoldrick demonstrates that they held different views than Baptists on the doctrines of revelation, Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, and that there are no real genetic links between the Anabaptists of the continent and the Baptists of England.
Whence the Baptist, then? McGoldrick argues that the main stream of Baptist life was an outgrowth of the Calvinistic Puritan movement in England, where churches of recognizably Baptist persuasion and practice (gathered church, believer’s baptism, and baptism by immersion) emerged in the 1630’s and 1640’s. he shows that these churches were one with their Presbyterian and Congregational brethren in the Calvinistic theology which they shared, even calling themselves Protestant and disavowing any connection with the Anabaptists. If this is the true origin of Baptists, then there is no possibility of a succession of Baptist churches from apostolic times. The Landmark doctrine is, in McGoldrick’s words, “a phenomenon of relatively recent origin” (p. 145), having emerged in the nineteenth century and been popularized by J. R. Graves and J. M. Pendelton.
In view of the paucity of scholarly works by competent historians arguing against Baptist successionism, McGoldrick’s book must be regarded as an important contribution. His conclusions are sound, his handling of the evidence sure, and his tone irenic but firm.
The other half of the case against Baptist successionism would be a theological argument based on careful exegesis of relevant New Testament passages–such as 1 Corinthians 12:13 and the Epistle to the Ephesians–but that would be the subject of a different book. As for this book, it is difficult to see how the historical argument could be any better presented than has been done by James McGoldrick.
So, having read the above review, who can explain to me the following overused quote of Spurgeon which appears to have him favoring the views of Baptist Successionism?
” We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther and Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel under ground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents. Persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a Government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor, I believe, any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man. We have ever been ready to suffer, as our martyrologies will prove, but we are not ready to accept any help from the State, to prostitute the purity of the Bride of Christ to any alliance with Government, and we will never make the Church, although the Queen, the despot over the consciences of men.”

—Charles H. Spurgeon
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15 responses

  1. This reminds me of one of those issues Calvin would say isn’t worth his time.

  2. You know John, as I was reading your post, a voice kept calling to me… “Who’s gonna fill that chair”?

  3. Fundamentally Reformed | Reply

    One of the things Landmarkists do is ignore evidence. They argue that history was written by the winners and so the case against the groups mentioned in the post above is exaggerated to make the RCC look good. Also, some groups of anabaptists for instance, may have had faulty theology. So every group which shared one noticeable feature–rebaptizing adults–was lumped in to the category and thus guilty by association.

    There may be some small truth to their arguments, but more often than not, landmarkists are guilty of stretching the evidence and reading modern day Baptist-ism back into all the groups that they like from history.

    As for Spurgeon–hey, he can be wrong every once in a while. We modern day Baptists share a similarity in belief about a separation of church and state with anabaptists and earlier groups. However we don’t have a problem with oaths of allegiance to governments and with fighting in wars alongside our fellow-citizens. The anabaptists and others did not believe in that.

    Good post, John. In discussing this with landmarkists, they often downplay the history argument and just believe in their special interpretation and its supposed ramifications, unfortunately.

  4. David,

    I guess Calvin never dealt with the Roman Catholic tradition of apostolic succession?

  5. Gage,

    I guess Schapp thinks Hyles filled Spurgeon’s chair (the edited, semi-Pelagian Spurgeon, that is)!

  6. Dave & Elisha (er uh, Gage),

    Thanx 4 takin’ me seriously, dudes!

  7. Bob,

    I’ll forward your reply to myself at work and correspond to you this evening. Had to get the toughies out of the way, first 🙂

  8. Bob,

    But I will say this, regarding your last line. Modern fundamentalists are the heirs of early twentieth century fundamentalism, who got burned by “education” and “scholarship” so they made the mistake of overreacting to the liberals’ abuse of the good gift of scholarship.

    The more I read the historical claims of Landmarkism, and considered how it was simplified and spoon fed to the laity from the pulpit, the preachers I heard definitely left me thinking they wanted me to project modern “Baptist-ism” (as you put it) onto all the persecuted heretics of the past. Up to and including the Antinomian Anne Hutchison(by Dr. A. V. Henderson) and Michael Servetus (by Gage’s cousin, Dr. Bobby W. Herrell).

    Truth and accurate scholarship is not high on the Landmarkists’ agenda. Whatever makes for “good preachin'” will never have such competition in such circles.

    More later . . .

  9. Apostolic succession/authority comes to us through and by the Word of God. The very idea that there is inherent authority apart from the Scripture is heretical in and of itself. For Spurgeon to say that the “Baptist” have cornered the market on “an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves…” shows the degree of his naivete when it came to some matters (not to mention unbiblical). I might go to him for a good sermon, but not as an authority on eccesiastical history or church polity.

    It is purely a Romanist concept that says tradition and or “Successionism” (baptist or otherwise) holds a pedigree over and against another. Where our loyalty counts is in fidelity to the Word of God and adherence to the Law and the Prophets contianed therein.

  10. Amen, David!

    Couldn’t have said it any better!

    If I coulda, I woulda . . .

  11. […] Protestant view, promoted by someone with whom they presume a link due to their doctrine of Baptist successionism, they are liable to take full advantage of it. Having this doctrine taught out of this text, I […]

  12. […] century Baptist Successionist A. C. Dayton at the suggestion of J. R. Graves (the father of modern Baptist Successionism in America). The story of Theodosia Ernest is a fictitious debate sparked by the discovery of a […]

  13. […] by so much bad history in the name of promoting the Baptist tradition. A few years ago, I read a book review in the Founders Journal of a book called Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist […]

  14. […] are) because of their commitment to a view of Baptist history called “Landmarkism” or Baptist Successionism, I seriously doubt this is the case with Rick […]

  15. […] by so much bad history in the name of promoting the Baptist tradition. A few years ago, I read a book review in the Founders Journal of a book called Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist […]

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